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Think back to the nursery rhymes you learned when you were a wee child. You probably can recite a dozen of them. But did you ever stop to think about what the words were actually saying? At that age, did you possess the critical thinking skills needed to discern the metamessages in those seemingly harmless rhymes?

As an example, let’s take “Little Miss Muffet,” attributed to the seemingly benevolent Mother Goose:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

Let’s consider what’s really going on here:

• There’s no indication that any adults are present. Miss Muffet is sitting on a tuffet, which is either a grassy mound or a low stool, depending on your dictionary. Either way, she appears to be alone in a hazardous place: a place where spiders freely roam to frighten children. There is no indication of an adult being present to mash the spider into spider paste and thus calm Miss Muffet. In addition, Miss Muffet gets no directions on how to eat curds and whey. Are they best served cold? Should they be microwaved before eating? What temperature should they be heated to for safe consumption?

• Speaking of curds and whey, did you realize what they are? Curds are the solid part of sour milk, and whey is the watery part of curdled milk. This is a dish with a main ingredient of negligence: a dish of sour milk and curdled milk byproducts. We have no indication that she’s eating anything else that might balance her diet—a nice spinach salad, for instance. She also should be eating some salmon, for the omega-3 fatty acids, the protein, and the properties that keep blood clots from forming—a very real danger for someone on a diet consisting of curds and whey. Sure, she gets a little protein from the whey, but at the same time, she’s running the risk of developing lactose intolerance and other health problems because of the fat and cholesterol in her dish. Then again, certain aspects of lactose intolerance might keep spiders away in the first place.

Let’s think about the metamessages in this rhyme. I find three:

1. Children should be seen and not heard. We don’t hear a peep of protest from Miss Muffet about the revolting meal she’s been served, nor is there any indication she cried aloud in fright at the presence of the spider.

2. It’s acceptable for children to be forced at a very early age to fend for themselves. Miss Muffet clearly can’t take care of herself, though. She may have even fixed the curds and whey herself because she was incapable of making a more nutritious meal. And the spider? She could have taken her shoe and terminated the spider with extreme prejudice. What does she do, though? She runs away.

3. Children are taught to respect authority figures even when those figures don’t have the children’s best interests at heart. If Miss Muffet didn’t make the dish herself, then somebody served that bowl of curds and whey.

Last night, after I had been thinking about this rhyme and finally realized what it meant, I was shocked, revolted—even sickened. In fact, I’m breaking out in a cold sweat as I write this. But I am not going to let these hidden messages remain unexposed. I am not going to let them continue to damage children and, by extension, our society.

As soon as I work up the nerve, I’m going after Humpty Dumpty.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2013 03:41 am (UTC)
I blame that nursery rhyme for my lifelong fear of spiders.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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